A few weeks ago, I received a remarkable email. It began with the following salutation:
“Good afternoon, spirit experts,”
I kept reading. With a salutation like that, how can you not?
The email was an invitation to participate as a judge in a blind tasting for the annual Best of the Northwest spirits competition held by a local magazine: Sip Northwest. I’m a fan of the magazine itself, having picked up a copy on more than one occasion. So I probably would have agreed to be part of the judging panel even if the email had led off with “hey bozo.” But the flattery certainly didn’t hurt and I immediately jumped at the opportunity.
I arrived at the designated location at the appointed time – 11:00 a.m. on a Tuesday. And, as instructed by my hosts I had eaten a hearty meal and was prepared to do a lot of the swish and spit routine designed to keep me from falling down after evaluating roughly 40 different spirits. I was dressed in a manner befitting the seriousness of my task – blazer and bow tie. In short, I was ready to do this thing.
Or at least I thought I was. But the reality is that there really isn’t anything that can prepare you for judging the individual merits of a large assortment of flavored vodkas in the morning.
Is sample 1 better at being raspberry vodka than Sample 2 is at being honeyed vodka? And what about Sample 3, the lemon vodka that tastes a bit like lemon-flavored Pez candy? I like Pez. Pez sounds pretty good right about now.
As the morning turned to early afternoon, we worked our way from flavored vodka through whiskey, rum, fruit liqueur, brandy and then into the final round of gin judging. After turning in all the scoring sheets (and being served a slice of remarkably good pizza), I had a chance to visit the sample preparation area and learn the identities of the spirits I’d been tasting. A bit of chatting with the hosts and my fellow judges later, I grabbed a cab back to my office and other, less-glamorous, work obligations.
As I’ve reflected on the experience over the days since, I have come up with a few key points which – although not necessarily legal in substance – I think might be worth sharing for the benefit of spirits producers. I hope they are helpful. [Note: I have purposefully obfuscated the specifics of any spirit sampled – the below are not reflective of any individual product.]
Be committed… A few of the samples we tried seemed to be holding back. For example, if you are describing your product as a blackberry vodka, then it needs to taste or smell of blackberries. Even better would be if it smelled and tasted of blackberries. But if your blackberry vodka simply has a slightly purplish color and a taste that – if you close your eyes and concentrate very hard – might remind you of some kind of fruit, then you’re just confusing the consumer. You need to know what your product is trying to be, and make sure that it accomplishes its aim. In a few cases, it was difficult for the judges to understand what the distiller was trying to accomplish because the product seemed to be holding back a bit.
But still show some restraint. Sometimes subtlety is key. Just because you want that blackberry vodka to have notes of blackberry doesn’t mean that it must taste of the ripest, sweetest blackberry you’ve ever tasted. It doesn’t need to be a technicolor-enhanced, ultra high-definition blackberry experience to be good. It can be a hint of blackberry and be good. In many cases, our panel found that the product might have benefited from the distiller holding back just a bit – showing just a tiny bit of restraint so that the product might be more complex, more subtle, and ultimately more enjoyable.
Quality Matters. By most definitions, all of the distilleries submitting products to the tasting panel are quite small. But being small doesn’t mean that you get to be careless. A few samples of gin were cloudy. One of the flavored vodkas had bits of solids floating about in it. One of the samples – I won’t say which category – smelled so much of acetone that several at our table (myself included) didn’t really want to taste it. These are not issues of simple aesthetics. These are issues of quality. And quality matters no matter how small your still.